It should have been Nate Ridgeway's promotion. Instead his hotelier boss had given the job to his pampered, flighty daughter, Atlanta Sheridan, and now Nate had to "babysit" her in her new role!
Although Atlanta Sheridan (Lannie to her friends) looked every inch the society heiress, Nate soon discovered it was just a front. Poised perfection masked the warm, intelligent, funny person beneath. Nate didn't want to even like her, let alone find her attractive. For a man famous for always Doing The Right Thing, sleeping with the boss's daughter seemed so wrong! And then the bombshell, which he suspected could be distinctly career limiting—the heiress was now expecting his baby!
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August, San Diego
Lannie was still in the bathroom.
Nate had spent the past half hour in the hotel bar downstairs having coffee with his sister Krystal, a rendezvous that she had called "putting our heads together and coming up with a strategy" and he'd mentally renamed "hitting up her big brother for money." Lannie had been in the bathroom when he left their luxurious room, and she was still in there now.
Or was she?
It was very quiet in there. The door was closed. No sound of shower water running, no whine from a blow dryer, or the little chinking sounds of make-up items being placed on a marble surface. He listened, feeling as if he was invading her privacy, feeling his stress levels rise. Thanks to the latest drama with his family, those levels had been high to begin with.
His mind circled pointlessly as he attempted to solve his sister's problems. He'd written her a check for the money she wanted, discharging her latest debt and more, but would it really help? What could he do that might have a snowball's chance of yielding a more long-term benefit?
And as for his mother…
It wasn't something he could deal with this minute, he told himself. Stick with what was really important.
Was Lannie okay?
Was she in there?
Or had she bailed on him, ordered a car for the airport and taken the next flight out of San Diego, the way he'd half-expected her to ever since they'd arrived on Thursday? He'd seen her checking airline schedules on her phone last night.
He pivoted toward the mirror-fronted closets and wrenched open the doors, seriously expecting a gaping void instead of the six or seven gorgeous outfits that had been hanging there half an hour ago. He deserved it, really. He could have made the past few days easier for her, if he'd tried. He could have kept her away from Friday's dinner, refused to let her help with everything on Saturday. He could have refused the coffee with Krystal, told his sister to deal with her own problems—or simply cut to the chase and written her the check while standing in the hotel lobby.
In the closet he saw the flashes of bright color. Gold, red, sepia, green… Lannie's outfits were still there, neatly hung above a line of matching shoes.
His heartbeat slowed again and the blood stopped beating in his ears. For a long moment, relief made him lightheaded.
She hadn't left.
She was still here.
He caught sight of his reflection in the mirror and saw the tension in his tightly held fists, his dark hair rumpled and overdue for a cut, the shirt tail that had come untucked.
Then he heard the sound of the faucets running in the bathroom basin and reverted to his original, and almost as stressful, question. So if Lannie hadn't bailed out of San Diego—out of Nate's life—why had she been in the bathroom for so long? Was she okay?
"Lannie?" he finally called out.
"Yup, I'm here." Her voice sounded strange.
"Are you okay?" It seemed lame to him after he'd been asking it in his head for the past five minutes—not sufficiently concerned, or maybe…new thought…not sufficiently confrontational. He knew they were on a knife edge. They both knew it. There'd been episodes of talking about it, circling around a couple of heavyweight issues, like boxers circling in the ring without throwing a punch. Nothing was resolved. Nothing was even fully said, out in the open.
They both just knew.
"I'm…yeah…sort of okay," she answered.
"Give me another minute."
More sounds of running water, and a high-pitched whine he recognized as her electric toothbrush, less strident than the blow-dryer. Finally she emerged.
And she wasn't okay.
Even without her pale skin, hair roughly knotted at the back, and water splodges down the front of her top, he'd have known she wasn't okay. The look in her eyes, the tightness around her mouth, the daunted, hunted quality in the way she held her body—all of it so different from how he normally saw her, so bright and beautiful and confident and carelessly—sometimes defiantly—strong. "How was your coffee with Krystal?" she asked.
"Fine. It was fine. The usual. But—"
"Were you right about what she wanted? You were. I can see. What did you—?"
"I don't want to talk about my sister right now. What's the matter? You look—"
"Just give me another moment."
"Tell me," he said.
"I will. I will." She sat on the bed, as if gathering her strength, or sorting through her mind for the right words.
He was torn between wanting her to just say it, cut and dried, to put them both out of their misery, and wanting to put his arms around her, pull that messy twist out of her hair and bury his face in it, breathe it in and kiss her and tell her she didn't need to say it, not yet, not if she didn't want to, not for hours if she didn't want to. To tell her that whatever it was, it would be okay in the long run because he was here, and they were so strong together. They'd work it out. He always managed to work things out. He always stepped up to the plate.
But would she want to hear all that? He didn't think she would.
Instead, he compromised. Sat beside her and took her hand, brushed the skin over her knuckles softly with his thumb. "No hurry, Lannie." Her skin was so soft. He wanted to lift her hand to his face and breathe in the powdery scent of her moisturizer.
He wanted, as always, to take her to bed.
But her thoughts were a thousand miles from anything like that. She seemed to wish that her body was a thousand miles away, also. A thousand miles from him. A thousand miles from whatever had happened in the bathroom and was still haunting her.
She took a big, wobbly breath, pressed her palms against her cheeks as if to cool her heated skin, raked her perfect teeth over her lower lip. "I don't want you to think I've been—that I've been holding this to myself without even hinting. I mean, it didn't add up until just now, when I got sick in there. The various—You know, we've been—The signs, and what they might mean. I didn't put it all together. But now… I'm scared! This is huge! I didn't expect it. I'm not ready. I haven't had time to think. And this trip has been challenging enough. I'm so scared!"
"Just damn well say it, Lannie."
"Okay. Yes." Another breath. She looked at him with burning blue eyes. "I think I must be pregnant, Nate. In fact, I'm almost sure."
Of course. In the space of three seconds, give or take, it went from being the farthest thing from his mind to the most obvious thing in the world.
Life was like that, wasn't it? His mother and sister could both have told him that.
And he knew exactly what must be going on in Lannie's head, exactly what her instincts and her previous track record would tell her to do. She'd always pulled the strategy off so well, in the past.
It had worked for her.
It had helped her survive everything from her parents' conservative and stereotypical expectations to machine-gun toting brigands in a mountain wilderness.
He shouldn't have said it out loud, and it sure as heck shouldn't have been the first thing he said, but, hell, this had been a rough few days, and it was one of the big issues they'd been circling around—maybe even the issue, as far as he was concerned.
So he opened his mouth and the words just fell out. "Pregnant. And I guess you've already worked out, haven't you, before you even shared the news with me, exactly how you're going to bail?"
June, Upstate New York
Atlanta Sheridan was not your stereotypical hotel heiress.
Or so Nathan had been told.
Right at this moment, though, she sure looked it. He watched her strutting across the airport tarmac toward him. Her highlighted blonde hair shone in the sunshine of early June and swung in the breeze. It looked as clean and bouncy as if she'd had it styled and cut mid-flight. Her smoothly tanned legs tapered down to shoes with straps the width of dental floss and heels like eight-inch nails. Her sunglasses said, "Look at me!" while supposedly disguising her face, and her outfit screamed a four-figure price tag.
You won't last a month, honey, Nate thought with cynical satisfaction. He liked strong, interesting women, not bimbos. Over the years his serious dates had included an Olympic ski racer, a wildlife photographer, and a professor of forest ecology, and that was the kind of female company he preferred, both in his personal life and on the job.
A woman like this, on the other hand…
The airport in upstate New York was tiny. Here she was, coming through the glass door into a building you couldn't really class as a terminal. More like a prefabricated shed, about the size of a grade-school classroom with a couple of offices opening off it, and vending machines covering any requirement for food and drink.
He stepped forward to greet her. "Ms. Sheridan…"
"Yes, hi, how are you?" She beamed at him, pushed the sunglasses up on top of her head, then reached out to shake his hand. Her French manicured nails gleamed as her fingers slipped against his. Her top lip had a little dent in it, which meant that even when she closed her mouth her lips looked as if they were about to part.
Suddenly, he found himself almost stammering. "Good. I'm great," he said. His wits had to grope for solid ground. "Nathan Ridgeway. Nate."
She had amazing eyes, as blue as summer water, and an electric handshake, cool and firm and filled with a kind of energy he felt but couldn't analyze. Not right now.
Something had happened.
A mix of slamming desire had rushed through him, along with astonishment, curiosity and something else he couldn't name, all in the space of the few seconds they'd taken to shake hands. It didn't make sense.
The desire, sure. She was a very attractive woman. But the rest of it he didn't remotely understand. He let go of her hand with a tug of reluctance and repeated clumsily, "Yeah, Nate."
"In that case, I'm Lannie…"
"Lannie," he echoed, still struggling with…something.
"…if you want."
Oh, I want!
In thirty seconds of acquaintance, she'd thrown him totally off course, unsettled him down to his bones, kicked a whole raft of assumptions out from under him.
Changed his life.
Except that was insane, because his life didn't work that way.
Across her cheeks, below her stunning sapphire eyes and beneath a translucent sheen of make-up, he could see the scouring remnants of wind burn and what looked like a mosquito bite. She didn't have an ounce of excess weight on her—in fact, as she'd approached across the tarmac he'd thought she was too thin for his taste—yet there was some satisfying muscle tone in those salon-tanned arms, where he'd expected the limp, boneless quality that he'd seen in models and actresses and pampered and indulged women in the past.
Even the tan wasn't quite what it seemed, at a second glance. Spray tan, definitely, but beneath it in several places—her neck and the backs of her hands—there was actual sun exposure and more of that scouring effect. She'd spent some serious time out of doors recently, and not simply lying on a Caribbean beach.
Nate thought again of what the manager of North Carolina's Sheridan Shores had told him just last week, at a corporate conference. "Atlanta Sheridan is not your stereotypical hotel heiress. If you ever meet her, don't dismiss her or underestimate her." Nate hadn't suspected then that he'd be meeting her so soon, and in such circumstances, but with an instinct that now seemed very much on the ball, he'd stored the Sheridan Shores manager's insight away in his mind, word for word.
Don't dismiss her or underestimate her.
His smug, rock-like confidence that she wouldn't last a month as manager of the Sheridan Lakes resort developed several hairline cracks, and the powerful sense of desire and deeper meaning was like an attack of vertigo when he'd never been scared of heights in his life.
"Do you have any checked bags?" he asked, working purely on auto-pilot now. She'd arrived on a commercial flight, but there had only been three other passengers on the small aircraft. A baggage cart that looked more like a golf buggy beetled its way toward the terminal, carrying an assortment of suitcases.
"Ohh yeah, I have bags!" She wrinkled her nose, half-grimace, half-smile, very cheeky. She drawled, with a hint of defiance, "I shopped, yesterday."
"Right." Of course she'd shopped. He was more than happy to have that particular element of the stereotype back in place. It gave him something to cling to, the way a shipwrecked man might cling to a single plank of wood.
The golf buggy arrived at the side of the building and its contents were unloaded inside. Yep, shopped alright. Following her indication, he pulled out two enormous pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage, more like steamer trunks than mere suitcases, an exotic looking overnight bag that appeared to be made of carpet, and—but this one couldn't be hers, surely?—a battered and stained hiking backpack, forty pound capacity if Nate was any judge. It had a sleeping bag roped to the bottom of it and a pair of burnt orange woollen hiking socks poking out the top.
"If I wheel, can you carry?" she said, extending the handles of the two chunks of Louis Vuitton and rolling them into position. She acted as if they were miniature poodles on gold chain leads. Then she nudged the scuffed hiking pack a few inches in his direction with the toe of her flimsy shoe.
"Uh, sure. The car's parked just outside." He glanced down at her ridiculous, impractical footwear and couldn't help adding, "So where have you come from, exactly? Your father didn't say." Hiking pack and Louis Vuitton. Wind burn and killer heels. Shopaholic with muscle tone. Something didn't gel, and the need to know more gnawed at his gut and wouldn't let him alone.
"Well, last night and the night before, at the Sheridan Central Park, but if you mean before that…" She looked at the backpack he was swinging onto his shoulders. "Eastern Turkey."
"Turkey. Right." The pack's straps were too tight for the bulk of his shoulders, but for a fifty-yard walk, it didn't seem worth adjusting them, so he shrugged them into a more comfortable position and put up with them. "Mr. Sheridan…Bill… your father…wasn't very specific. In fact, I only found out you were coming a couple of days ago."
"Yes, the trip was cut short." The Sheridan hotel heiress gave a little shiver, turned away from him and didn't give any more detail. Nate was left trying—and failing—to fill in the gaps.
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